Tigray rebels say they have recaptured the north Ethiopian town of Lalibela, home to a UNESCO world heritage site, local residents told AFP, 11 days after Ethiopian forces said they had re-taken control.
The announcement marks another dramatic twist in the 13-month-old conflict that has killed thousands of people and triggered a deep humanitarian crisis in the north of Africa’s second most populous nation.
Tigrayan fighters “are in the town centre, there’s no fighting”, said a resident reached by telephone on Sunday afternoon.
“Yes, they came back. They are already here,” said a second resident, adding that they appeared to have come from the east, in the direction of Woldiya.
“The population, most of the people are scared. Some are running away. Most of the people have already left because there might be a revenge. We expressed our happiness before when the junta left.”
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group’s military leadership said in a statement shared with pro-TPLF media they had launched “comprehensive counter-offensives” in numerous locations including along the road linking Gashena and Lalibela.
“Our forces first defended and then carried out counter-offensives against the huge force that was attacking on the Gashena front and surrounding areas and managed to achieve (a) glorious and astonishing victory,” it said.
On Sunday evening, the TPLF, added that “after destroying and dispersing the massive enemy force stationed in and around Gashena” it had “recaptured Gashena and its surrounding (area) and… has captured Lalibela airport and Lalibela town”.
The government did not immediately respond to AFP’s requests.
Lalibela, 645 kilometres (400 miles) north of Addis Ababa, is home to 11 medieval monolithic cave churches hewn into the red rock and is a key pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Christians.
Communications have been cut in the conflict zone and access for journalists is restricted, making it difficult to verify the claims.
But in a tweet late on Saturday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said he had “headed to the front again” and forces under his leadership had captured several strategic locations in Afar and Amhara including the towns of Arjo, Fokisa and Boren.
The war broke out in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray to topple the TPLF after months of seething tensions with the group that had dominated politics for three decades before he took office.
He said the move was in response to attacks on army camps by the TPLF, and vowed a swift victory. But the rebels mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June before advancing into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
Fears of a rebel march on Addis Ababa prompted countries such as the United States, France and Britain to urge their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, although Abiy’s government said the city was secure.
The fighting has displaced more than two million and driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates, with reports of massacres and mass rapes by both sides. But intense diplomatic efforts led by the African Union to try to reach a ceasefire have failed to achieve any visible breakthrough.
The more than 13 months of conflict have plunged 9.4 million people “into a critical situation of food assistance” in the regions of Tigray, Afar and Amhara, the United Nations says.
- Tell / AFP report